Boulder, Colorado has been quietly asserting itself as a dining destination. And in addition to the upscale food scene, a third wave of local coffee roasters is making its presence felt, along with a stronger-than-ever microbrewery scene (more than twenty in nearby Fort Collins alone), and a national nexus of natural food brands (Silk Soymilk, noosa yoghurt, Celestial Seasonings and WestSoy Tofu are all based here). All of this -- along with the Boulder Farmer’s Market, which strongly supports nearby local agriculture -- make the city an incubator for chefs, food entrepreneurs, and foodies alike. The best part: It can be experienced for little to zero dollars.
Here are 10 true tastes of the local food scene in and around Boulder for $15 or less.
Root beer milk at Howling Cow Café at Morning Fresh Dairy Farm
Yup, that’s root beer milk, which is weirdly tasty. (Think about it as a melted root beer float.) For the less adventurous, there are also spicy Bakti Chai lattés and coffee lattés at the cafe, located at Morning Fresh Dairy Farm, right by the most idyllic of ponds. The dairy is fourth-generation family-run since 1894, and it’s now helmed by Rob Graves, whose great-grandfather started the business. His wife, Lori, runs the cafe. Fun fact: This is also where local brand noosa yoghurt is made – the factory is right on the farm, and you can get fresh yogurt while visiting. The drive out from Boulder is beautiful, and the farm is close to Rist Canyon, which is great for warm-weather hikes.
Brunch at The Kitchen
Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal, went to culinary school and this is the restaurant he opened. Though it has several locations now – and an expanding related fast-casual concept – Pearl Street is the original. The lemon ricotta pancakes at $12 are excellent, but the barbacoa tostada at $15 might be our favorite, if you’re able to spend a few more dollars for tax and tip. It’s a brilliant, Tex-Mex and characteristically Colorado riff off a Benedict, with poached eggs, red chili hollandaise, and pickled onions atop a fried tortilla that provides the perfect complementary crunch.
Happy hour and live music at St. Julien Hotel and Spa
Located right off Pearl Street and the perfect break from downtown shopping, the happy hour here is a steal. Bellinis and cocktails are just $7, and local bands play from 6:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. on the patio during the summer, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Folk music (or rock or jazz) and a view of Boulder’s peaks? Stunning. Wintertime shows are inside, Wednesdays through Saturdays. The truffle and reggiano tater tots at $6 are a great accompaniment to your libations.
A tour of New Belgium Brewery (free!)
One of the Colorado’s earliest and most successful craft breweries, New Belgium, was inspired by a bicycle trip to – you guessed it – Belgium, and started as a basement brewing operation. In 2015, it churned out nearly a million barrels, but when you visit, it still feels like it has the heart of a startup. And you can tell that everyone who works there really, really loves beer. There’s a lawn and fire pit out front, a full-service cafe, and free tours that offer four very generous glasses of beer. Although tours are free, they need to be reserved in advance.
The Boulder Farmer’s Market (free!)
If you’re in town on a Saturday morning, this is a must-stop. Many now-national brands (local dairy-made noosa yoghurt, for example) got their start as humble local retailers here; it’s very much a scene for chefs and local residents as well. Some standout vendors (with freebies) include: the mushroom tent and Ela Family Farms (with free cider samples). Bonus: Be sure to duck inside the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (free, donation-based) for a small but very high-quality selection of wall candy.
Blackbelly’s butcher shop
From Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg, this butcher shop deals with whole animals from small-scale farms in Colorado and Wyoming. For those passing through without a full-scale kitchen on your hands, there’s also an adjoining restaurant and deli with house-cured charcuterie. If you’re going on a hike, grab a bison terrine sandwich for $12 – it comes with spring pea and almond pesto, goat cheese, arugula, and pickled onion. Drooling yet? There’s also a great happy hour and breakfast.
Rapha Coffee Boulder
All-in-one bike and coffee shops are all the rage, and it’s easy to see why. Rapha Coffee is the perfect mix of stylish and functional; even if you have no interest in road or mountain biking it’s the perfect place to duck in for the morning and enjoy an iced latte from local Boxcar coffee roasters. While you’re there, admire the outdoorsy lifestyle accessories and improbably fashionable exercise gear. On weekends, you’ll see groups of riders coming back from the neighboring mountains, and if you find yourself wanting to join – a bike is yours for the renting. Pro-tip: For $200 a year, you get access to rental bikes at any of Rapha’s locations – such as Seattle, New York, and San Francisco – along with all the coffee you can drink.
If you’re packing a picnic for a mountain hike, you’ll definitely want to stop here if your tastes lean gourmet. With locally cured charcuterie and a very respectable selection of cheeses – a standout is the La Tur, an unbelievably creamy blend of goat’s, sheep’s, and cow’s milks – you’ll be tempted to drop hundreds of dollars in this store. Still, for $15, you can get a spicy log of summer sausage or a six pack of Colorado beer, and – for free – plentiful samples of cheese with no judgment.
Visiting a grocery store? When it’s Lucky’s, yes. The shop looks like a cross between Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, and a small ski town grocery. At this Boulder-based chain, Colorado brands get their own notecard on each aisle, so you can easily find locally made goodies if you’ve missed the Saturday Farmer’s Market. If you’re going camping, stop by for some house-made brats made with local Oskar Blues beer. Their café also features locally roasted Conscious Coffee cold brew and Rowdy Mermaid kombucha on tap – it’s brewed from mountain spring snowmelt.
The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse
At first glance, this teahouse looks like it should be anywhere but Boulder. That’s because it was constructed in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Boulder’s sister city, then de-constructed and shipped to Colorado where it was set up right off Pearl Street. Today, stepping into the ornate peacock blue building is a quintessentially Boulder experience that can’t be missed. Come here for a daily rotating selection of iced teas, or a casual but transportive sit-down breakfast and try the kookoo sabzi, an omelette with baba ghanoush and saffron rice for $10. They also offer traditional American staples, as well as a British afternoon tea.